Call for Study: the Buena Vista Social Feud

I finally met someone associated with the private LDS university on the East Coast called Southern Virginia University. Meant to serve as an alternative to Brigham Young’s University, this recently founded institution has come to dominate a small mill-town in rural Virginia. By report, the town, Buena Vista, has the densest geographical wards of any East of the Mississippi, housing a variety of student and married wards, as the vast majority of students, faculty and administrators are involved Latter-day Saints. By report, some local residents have strongly resented the encroachment of the LDS, have staged “secret” town meetings, and have actively sought to have life return to what it was before the Mormons arrived. For those of us who have been wanting more access to the Missouri or Illinois conflicts, this seems an ideal experiment occurring before our very eyes.
I’m preoccupied with my research on death and the body, but it strikes me that this is a ripe field, white and ready to harvest for anthropologists, sociologists, and scholars of lived religion or community identification. Does anyone have additional information about Buena Vista or SVU? Has anyone experienced some of these interactions? What do you think study of these dynamics might tell us about earliest Mormonism, modern Mormonism, and the changes we have undergone? Should current LDS in Buena Vista consult the annals of history to understand how best to interact with critical neighbors? Would lessons learned in BV apply in Utah or other areas of high Mormon population? How about vice versa?

I will note that my informant saw much evidence of cooperation and mutual respect in the town as well; not all local BV residents resent the Mormons. That was true in Missouri and Illinois as well, incidentally.


  1. Sam,

    I don’t know who your source is, but this report sounds pretty fishy to me. I have two siblings who have attended SVU and I’ve visited the campus a couple of times. My strong sense is that influx of Latter-day Saints into the area has been a real economic boon to this small rural community.

  2. My source is quite good and reliable, a former observer on the ground. Remember that the LDS were a huge economic boon for their neighbors in Missouri and Illinois as well.

  3. Sam, these questions are being raised again in Nauvoo. When the temple was dedicated there a few years ago, LDS started going to the town in much greater numbers than they had previously, not just to visit on vacation, but also to live and retire. The demographics are shifting, and the old-timers and the newcomers are still figuring out how to accomodate each other. Nick L., who used to live there, might have some additional insight.

  4. a few years ago (5, oh my goodness) NPR did a little piece on the LDS return to Nauvoo and the long-time residents’ reaction. it was mixed. you can listen to it here:

  5. Any study of the LDS influx into Buena Vista would have to take into account the town-gown divide as well. Not only is the SVU crowd overwhelmingly LDS, but they are a bunch of academics in the middle of a mostly rural, working class area. That would suggest that there are socio-economic class distinctions as well, which may well exacerbate any apparent religious divides.

    (It would be interesting to compare attitudes in Lexington–just ten miles up the road from BV, and the home of a good number of SVU faculty and staff. Lexington, the home of VMI, is more of a college town, and the town-gown and socio-economic issues would be lessened.)

  6. Sam,

    An undocumented report from an unidentified source (one person you just met apparently) that secret town meetings are being held hardly qualifies as robust evidence that deep hostility exists in BV. Before jumping to possible explanatory theories, the first order of business for any serious study would be to try determine whether such bad feelings exist at all.

    If, for the sake of blog argument however, we are going to assume that animosity does exist, I think Mark is asking the right preliminary questions. Looking to the socioeconomic class distinctions that the LDS introduce is a much more interesting way to frame a potential research project. If I had a student who wanted to work on a project like this I would caution her against drawing too hasty analogies to nineteenth century tensions.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    SVU does community service on steroids, as it were; perhaps that commitment to better the community was intended in part to forestall such local resentments from developing.

  8. Interesting. I have been absolutely fascinated by this school since I first heard about it. My favourite thing from their website was rotation which included the relative distance to the Washington DC temple.

    It just seemed so odd to see a Privately owned University talking like that. Of course they have no grad program so they are dead to me! ;)

  9. mapinguari says:

    I graduated from the law school at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA (10 miles up the road, as noted in comment 5) in 2003. Another fellow in my current ward graduated from the law school in 2007; his wife attended SVU. We were talking about this very subject just the other day.

    Neither of us were aware of any open resentment toward Mormons while we lived in Lexington/Buena Vista. In fact, most citizens of Buena Vista seemed to welcome the steady influx of clean, upstanding college students and the corresponding injection of new money into the local economy. There were concerns about the potential for unabated growth in the student population and the effect such growth would have on the infrastructure, housing availability, etc. This does not, of course, preclude the possibility of secret meetings and ruminations by the citizenry of Buena Vista.

    Lexington is home to both VMI and Washington & Lee University. The former is militaristic and the latter is anything but (96% participation in Greek sororities/fraternities). I think the contrast between the three schools and their respective student bodies, particularly in light of the populations of Lexington and BV (approx. 7,000 and 10,000, respectively) is more interesting than whether the BV locals despise the Mormons. Just my two cents.

  10. Former Knight... says:

    I attended SVC (College at the time, not University) when it first opened in 1996. Initially, there were some people who were resistant to the idea of this old college being overtaken by Mormons. Some ministers actively preached against Mormonism and what the influx of Mormons would do to their small town. But, they were the vocal minority.

    By and large, from my experience, most of the citizenry was grateful that the lights on that hill weren’t going to shutdown…and, many saw it as an opporuntity to breath some new life into Buena Vista.

    I think some of the most ticked off people about the change from Southern Seminary (later called So Virginia College for Women), a two year finishing school for girls, to a coed LDS school with a BYU-esque honor code were the VMI cadets, who had affectionately nicknamed the school Southern Semenary.

    And, as the school has grown and started to encroach on Dinky Hill (yup, that’s the name of the Hill where the school is located), there have been several attempts to stop the growth, or make SVU jump through some costly hoops. Some people view these obstacles as veiled bigotry, others view it it as a town that is seizing an opportunity (think of Mayor Quimby when Springfield is the filming site for Radioactive Man and Fallout Boy).

    SVC does a great job at providing service to the community. When the school initially opened, Wed mornings were dedicated solely to service (working in Nursing homes, schools, clean up neighborhoods, etc…it was like a weekly Eagle Scout project). But, this was also a likely by-product of the ongoing pilot program in the Virginia Richmond mission; the Ammon model (service first, preach later). Regardless of the motivations, I know that went a long way in making inroads with the community.

    After the first year, when fundraising was difficult, the administration realized that they needed to give potential donors that warm and fuzzy feeling that they were not just donating to any college. So, SVC started mirroring itself to align with BYU on many issues.

    The initial vision of the school was to be an alternative to BYU on the East Coast. But, recruitment was best, not from hotspots like Northern VA, but from places like Utah. Utahns came in droves, and not just students, but administrators and teachers as well. On many issues, it was like watching a square peg trying to shove itself into a round hole. I remember sitting in a meeting where the administration wanted to throw a dance, but they were lamenting the terrible female to male ratio. One suggestion was to call the dance, “The Polygamist Formal,” where men could bring more than one date. While many chuckled and thought it was a great idea, I gently reminded them that many in Va still think Mormons practice polygamy, and that it wouldn’t be a good idea. They hadn’t even thought of the perception to the outside community…and that was not a singular experience that I witnessed.

    Sooo, I think some of the blame can be placed on the feet of certain SVC adminstrators, just not appreciating the nature of the south, or trying to Utah-ize the place, or becoming an insulated bubble on top of that hill.

    But, from what I have seen from the current crop of administrators, specifically Paul Edwards, the school seems to be headed in the right direction.

    Someone asked about Lexington. With the injection of LDS into the county (there are four family wards, and, I think there are at least 6 student wards now) there was a need to build a new stake center. The initial propsed site was within Lexington city limits. The proposal was denied, because of “increased traffic, water drainage, etc…” I read that a VMI PHd, a mormon from the area, came to the town meeting to respond to those concerns and showed that they were unfounded. Lexington residents who were there strongly protested, arguing “not in my back yard.” So, the proposal was denied (and the mock-ups of the church were beautiful).

    The church, from my understanding, had to be built a few miles outside of Lexington City limits.

    Take that for what it’s worth.

    Sorry for the length, but I think the area is ripe for a sociological/theological study. As SVU grows and as more LDS move to the area, there will continue to be some friction…

  11. Sam, this is fascinating, and Former Knight I’m glad you chimed in. The town name reminds me of Disney, as if it’s a planned community like Celebration. I am fascinated by this idea that it’s a private Mormon university, “church” but “not church.” Do you think BYU/ the LDS leadership will absorb it or sanction it at some point, and if so, are there other “grassroots” things we could get going that would later become part of the institutional church? If not, then what will be the long-term effect of having unsanctioned “Mormon” institutions like this one?

  12. Take this for the unverified rumor that it is, but I’ve heard that the LDS Church has made it very clear that it does NOT want to assume responsibility for new educational institutions.

    As for “unsanctioned Mormon institutions”, it might be interesting to look at LDS-oriented private schools in Utah such as the Liahona Academy.

  13. cj douglass says:

    Did any of you know that Orson Scott Card is one of the faculty at SVU?!

  14. Former Knight says:

    There have been several visits from the Brethren to SVU over the years. They have made it clear that while the church has no plans to incorporate SVU under its umbrella, they are quite interested in its progress. CES only just recently agreed to construct an institute building on its campus; I know that this is a boon for the school.

    The initial draw for many investors was to see how a private institution with an LDS slant could gain traction outside of Utah, and then perhaps export the SVU model elsewhere. I think, at this point, SVU is just happy to be in the black.

  15. I went to SVU for EFY, and I was going to apply there for college. A couple things I observed on the drive down:

    If you don’t like country music or radio preachers, do not go any further south than Arlington if you don’t have plenty of CD’s. Consider yourself warned.

    About twice an hour, we saw 3 crosses from the highway–usually erected on a hilltop. I also remember a really big one. These, combined with a few of the billboards, made for an interesting day-long car drive. We practically made it into a car game similar to punching your sibiling when you see a VW Beetle. (“I saw them first!”)

    We finally arrived in Buena Vista, and I began to understand the nickname “Happy Valley.” Geographically speaking, Buena Vista is probably what Provo would look like if it had trees.

    Seeing as it was EFY, we were pretty much quarantined to the campus–and didn’t get to shoot the breeze with the locals. But judging from my experience with driving through Virginia, I think I can make a pretty decent guess about the conversations we would have had.

  16. Former Knight... says:

    Paradox’s comments are tragically sheltered and naive.

  17. just FYI, the city name is pronounced as “byoonah vista”

  18. What anon #17 said about the name. As a former Disney employee and SoCal native, it freaks me the heck out, every time.

    We visited SVU for my little sister (they keep calling, BTW, and if you have good grades and are transferring in from another college, I promise you they want you. A lot. Thousands of dollars worth of scholarshippy love.) It was a VERY small town — smaller than the one we lived in when I was “the” Laurel in our branch. The size of the meeting house completely unnerved all of us Ohio Mormon types, but the SLC-born tour guide thought we were crazy for thinking it was big. It was, at least, smaller than the University of Utah institute building (but then, what isn’t.)

    The town didn’t seem to be openly hostile. I really think that already having two very large colleges nearby, and having a school up on that hill for a century, really mitigate against tensions. I didn’t notice any creepy anti-Mormon stuff on billboards or church signs. People were friendly at stores and restaurants, and I’m sure it was obvious what we were up to. There might be something lurking under the surface (ooh, scary) but honestly, I doubt it.

    Oh, and there were a bunch of people I recognize from General Conference on their “board of directors” wall of glory. It was almost as strange as the giant Armor of God statue out front and the random Mormon art in the hallways. It was like the results of a thought exercise: “what if our institute had hundreds of thousands of dollars to spare and wanted more than anything else to get Mormons to enroll at the University?”

    BTW, if enough people are interested, they just make up new majors and (from what I understand) eventually whole new departments. I decided not to apply, way back in 1997, because they didn’t offer any majors I wanted: my recommendation is now to not worry about it so much. Their cafeteria food could use a little adjusting (and they’ve adopted the silly “decaffeinated sodas only” thing,) but other than that, it’s pretty awesome. I say this as a graduate of one of the largest undergraduate institutions in the country, though. I bet there are more political science majors at OSU than there are students at SVU.

    Paradox: this is the beauty of satellite radio. And a cool little FM transmitter that will let you play your MP3s on the car stereo. We only had to drive from Columbus to Lexington the one time, and we all swear by that device now.

  19. I’ve enjoyed this sequence. Thanks, even if it went places far different from the start.

  20. Missed number 18 while I was posting. Sarah, thanks for the pointer.

    Does anyone know if they still have the horses and the horse barns, etc.? My eight year old wants to know … though I’ve warned her that things could well change by the time she is fourteen and we let her start college.

  21. Former Knight says:

    #20: no, the horse barns and horses are gone. It was a running joke when we were there that we wouldn’t be surprised to see, a la Animal Farm, glue factory trucks pull up under the cloak of night.

    The barns and stables have been converted into an activity center, a basketball arena, a locker room, and exercise room (along with some offices).

  22. Thanks for the useful input. I was interested very generally in what people think and what their experiences have been. Former Knight, thanks particularly for the informative report. Others are welcome to give their impressions. It may well be that the naysayers are a simple vocal minority that are memorable to non-students precisely because they are unusual. My informant reports that many natives were mortified to hear the anti-Mormon rantings and the staging of these “secret” town meetings.

    I remain interested in a scholarly treatment of this phenomenon. I suspect there is much to learn.

  23. BTW

    I’m glad to see them doing well.

  24. I live in Lynchburg which is part of the Buena Vista stake and about a fourty minute drive away. I don’t know how the townspeople feel about the mormons taking over (I would tend to believe that they like it, if you were to drive through their “downtown” you would see that they need any economical boost they can get). However, my husband and I have dj’d a dance for the college students and we have joked since that the kids going to SVU are the ones that couldn’t get into BYU because of standard issues. (goth kids, piercings, tattoos, “improper dress”, etc)
    Obviously this isn’t the case for everyone but it’s the severe impression we got spending one night with them.

  25. They’ve got a well done web page, especially this part:

  26. #24: I’ve known several that went to SVU and none were like you describe. Even if so and I know you don’t mean to be hurtful, those type of comments and genralities can be perceived as unkind and hurtful.

  27. My source is my daughter, who attended SVU until last year, and myself – I’m a professor at a university in the region.

    The student population at SVU is much like that of Ricks (pardon, BYU-Idaho) about 30 years ago – their attitudes are a mixture of rural,religious in-your-face and urban let-live and let-me-do-my-thing. Faculty and administrators and campus life are, in many ways, more conservative than you’d find at the BYU campuses. SVU seems to take pride in that – much like Ricks administrators did back in the 1970s.

    The real “conflict” is not between Buena Vista people and the SVU crowd – they get along surprisingly well. That’s largely because of a mixture of economic self-interest and the demographics of evangelical values and behavior in the area.

    Instead, the conflict is between SVU students and Washington & Lee students. Attitudes among both groups have led to minor incidents in various places in Lexington where both come together. You might expect that, since SVU students hold themselves out as models of a conservative and somewhat “mysterious” religious faith, whereas W&L students regard themselves as a more exclusive and progressivist UVA – similar attitudes prevail toward Liberty University students an hour or so southeast.

    So it’s “gown & gown” stuff, not “town & gown” – a different dynamic. Frankly, I think any comparisons to historical attitudes in Missouri or Illinois are superficial, misleading, and not really useful. There are more interesting issues to pose here.